Massachusetts’ Approach to Building Capacity of Districts in School Turnaround Efforts SEA

By Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education / February 09, 2016

The January 7, 2016 issue of Education Week tells the story of school turnaround successes in Worcester, Massachusetts (“Massachusetts Enlists Districts in School Turnaround Efforts”).  In addition to giving Worcester educators well-deserved recognition of their success, the article also emphasizes how the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (ESE) has made building the capacity of districts to support their lowest performing schools a hallmark of its approach to school turnaround. In this series of blog posts, we will share what we’ve learned about the practices and conditions that successful turnaround schools in Massachusetts have in common, and seek input from readers on how we can continue to improve our supports to districts and schools.

As the Education Week article notes, ESE has committed itself to documenting and learning from our successful turnaround schools. Of 40 schools identified by the state’s accountability system as Level 4 (among the lowest performing, least improving schools most urgently in need of turnaround) in 2010 and 2011, 22 exited turnaround status by the fall of 2015.  By undertaking a three-year analysis of common practices and conditions in those ‘achievement gain’ schools, and contrasting them with those that remained in turnaround, we found that the achievement gain schools were characterized by four key “Turnaround Practices” related to shared leadership and professional collaboration, employment of intentional practices to improve instruction, tailored supports for all students, and a commitment to maintaining a safe and supportive atmosphere for all students and a collegial environment for educators. 

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These practices and the research that supports them are detailed in a 2014 policy analysis and practice guide report, Turnaround Practices in Action. And in order to bring the written report to life, we’ve developed a video series in collaboration with schools that have implemented the turnaround practices, highlighting specific strategies and features of their unique turnaround journeys.

The turnaround practices are foundational building blocks observed in a large number of achievement gain schools, but they are not formulaic or prescriptive. What successful implementation looks like varies based on every school and district’s unique, individual context. (In fact, many non-achievement gain schools have enacted elements of the turnaround practices, but the depth and precision of implementation is markedly different than in their achievement gain counterparts.) Even while allowing for school- and district- specific customization, the turnaround practices provide a strong research based framework within which ESE structures an array of turnaround services and supports, which can be tailored to fit a wide variety of school and district needs.  For example, we have aligned our state statute-defined turnaround planning process, our School Improvement Grant competition process, and our low-performing school monitoring system to the four key turnaround practices. 

ESE has been recognized for our approach to school turnaround that hinges on working with districts to build their capacity and strengthen their systems to turn around their lowest performing schools, rather than positioning ourselves to intervene directly at individual schools, in isolation from the district system. Our support takes a number of forms—including direct targeted assistance, grant opportunities, and identification of priority partners for school and district turnaround—all focused on building district capacity to support schools to implement the Turnaround Practices. From our vantage point as a state agency, we are able to survey successful practices across a large number of schools and use our learning to develop resources that will to better equip districts to support successful school turnaround.

While the Turnaround Practices research has been a source of great insight into the key elements of successful school turnaround, there are instances in which successful implementation and subsequent student achievement remain elusive, even when significant resources are provided and perceived barriers to turnaround are removed. In these cases, ESE partners with districts to support dramatic school interventions and innovations.  For example, the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) is an innovative partnership between ESE, Springfield Public Schools (the state’s second largest urban school district), and a number of key school turnaround partners and organizations, all focused on turning around nine struggling middle schools. The Zone is characterized by a unique board-based governance structure, which facilitates implementation of increased autonomies at the school level outside of standard district systems. 

These kinds of partnerships are relatively new work for Massachusetts, though many other states have employed them successfully; through this blog process, we look forward to learning from our colleagues nationally who are leading in this kind of approach towards innovative partnership for school turnaround. In the next edition of our blog post, we will share more about the design and early implementation of the SEZP, which is currently in its first year of turnaround efforts.

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